Poet Of The Week

Michelle Tong

     October 21–27, 2019

Michelle Tong is a writer and medical student from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has been published in the Margins and Glass, among other journals, and reads for the Bellevue Literary Review. This past summer, she won first prize in the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Student Poetry Awards and received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for study in Shira Erlichman’s The Fictive Poem workshop. Tong teaches poetry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lives in East Harlem.

Driving Lessons

                         For Baba


Stay between white white lines. Do not
cross the yellow. Switch lanes to let
fast cars pass. You do not belong
there yet. Safety in the middle.
You need experience, rules change, you know?
At Green Tree & Jean Nicolet,
cannot turn left, pulled over, like
driving from Norman Oklahoma to
Milwaukee Wisconsin.
Wrong direction on one-way road.
Accidents, you know? So follow the rules,
plan your route. At DMV, wait for
number on screen and repeat the
words when they do not understand.
Repeat, say I have experience
speed in mountain in ocean, like
trains from Xiamen Fujian to
Chongqing Chongqing.
Sea jia jia, you know?
Certified license. Self-renewed.
Not part of the plan but repeat, say
I have experience manage systems,
run servers, employee of one.
They do not understand, so
repeat, say fifty-seven no job,
I want to make change and am ready
for new challenge. I can stay between white
white lines. Will not cross the yellow.
Switch lanes to let fast cars pass.
I do not belong there. Safety
in the middle. Once, I know
the rules. Stay.

—Originally published in the Margins, April 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

My father was laid off six years ago and is still unemployed today. The job loss, compounded with other personal factors, cascaded his detachment from society and self. My poems always find a way back to this experience, as if they know my mind is not done chewing on my father’s perceived loss of identity, trying to unravel its origin. “Driving Lessons” came to me while commuting from Milwaukee to Madison—one of my first attempts to make sense of it all.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a manuscript about intergenerational and transnational queerness in a postcapitalist world. This is my evasive, academic way of saying “many things that may or may not be related.” In the meantime, I love keeping up with other poets’ art and trying to find time to create my own.

What’s a good day for you?

Daydreaming and drinking jasmine tea with the people I love.

What brought you to New York?

I moved to New York last July for medical school. I live in East Harlem and am always looking for new ways to explore and learn about my neighborhood.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Originally I’m from Wisconsin—born, raised and educated. I lived there for twenty-two years before coming to New York. The rest of my extended family lives in Chengdu and Chongqing, cities I consider second homes. I love that Wisconsin is unassuming and principled, and that we can claim Georgia O’Keeffe, LaCroix and the Culver’s reuben melt. I don’t love that we still witness the ramifications of redlining. I see Milwaukee as a more intimate, less expensive, yet equally segregated version of New York.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

A quick Google Calendar search reminds me that I mostly go to Brooklyn for the queer events. I can’t tell if that says more about Brooklyn or more about me. My most recent trip involved waiting in line outside a bar for the chance to watch the season finale of Are You the One? alongside the queer cast members. My date and I didn’t get in, but we did get to eat popsicles from a nearby bodega.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Poetry community is rare and should be preserved like fine cheese. (Wisconsinites will find any opportunity to bring dairy into the conversation. Forgive me.) For me, the foundation must sprout from shared values, and the poetry comes after. In Madison, I found it through Melanin Speaking, a literary magazine for students of color founded by Samantha Adams and Jia Gonitzke. In New York, I’m still piecing one together. My summer workshops with Brooklyn Poets and the Speakeasy Project have helped so much.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Cathy Linh Che. Split was one of the first Asian American poetry collections I read. I regret not fangirling with “Hello! You’re an inspiration!” when she sat next to me at the Poets House library. Aracelis Girmay. George Abraham’s workshop introduced me to the black maria, and I will never look at our galaxy in the same way. Shira Erlichman. Odes to Lithium should be required reading for all healthcare professionals.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

In college, I took Timothy Yu’s class on Asian American graphic novels and comics. We didn’t talk about poetry, but I read his collection 100 Chinese Silences on my own time and fell in love with the punchy, political lines. I’ve been hooked on poetry ever since. As for direct mentorship, I am beyond thankful for George Abraham, Jacob Appel, Shira Erlichman and Anu Jindal. Their workshops have encouraged me to find, not imitate, a poetic voice and taught me how to keep a regular writing practice.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I spent the summer consuming craft books in preparation for Metaphor in Medicine, a poetry class I’m teaching this semester. Adam Sol’s How a Poem Moves showed me how to frame craft discussions for a public audience and introduced me to many talented poets. Rahat Kurd is one of my new favorites. Her poem “Ghazal: In the Persian” is so outwardly skeptical and self-aware about working with an artistic tradition that is not quite hers to claim. When I try to incorporate Chinese poetic forms in my own writing, I use Kurd’s poem as a guide.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Since moving to East Harlem, I’ve been meaning to read Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows and Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, as well as more work by Julia de Burgos and Sonia Sanchez. And Afaa Michael Weaver’s Chinese translations! He’s been on my list for too long.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m definitely a note scribbler, dipper and physical book flipper. Since starting medical school, it’s hard for me to dedicate specific pockets of time for reading, but I try to chip away at my book list whenever possible. I’m currently reading Savannah Sipple’s WWJD and Other Poems. Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year is up next.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Full end rhyme. My attempts end up sounding like elementary school recess taunts (see above). For now, I’ll keep admiring it from afar and gasp when poets pull it off with such subtlety, grace and precision.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Any bench in the Conservatory Garden. I’m a sucker for manicured nature.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate begonias,

And what I spin into word you return as bloom,

For every myth in me as good nectar for you.

Why Brooklyn?

I’ll skip the obvious literary reasons and name my own. Greenpoint Petland Discounts: where I bought Bubbler, my betta fish. Green-Wood Cemetery’s Death Café: never been, but it’s why I’m returning.